The Battle of El Alamein
Part 1: Last
Gasp of the Desert Fox
By John R. Phythyon, Jr.
History is full of little ironies. World
War II was no exception. By the summer of
1942, the Allies were in trouble all over
Europe. Operation Barbarossa had knocked the
Soviets back, all of Western Europe but for
Great Britain was in Hitler’s grip, and the
British were struggling to hold on against
The Blitz and suffering at the hands of U-boats
in the Battle of the Atlantic.
the battle that would turn the tide and change
the course of the war happened far away from
all of those theaters. It took place in northern
Africa near a small rail station named El
Alamein. It would feature an as-yet unproven
general (who would rise to leonine status
as a result of his command) against one of
the most feared German field marshals in the
entire war: Erwin Rommel, the Desert Fox.
That it was the turning point of the war
was made more ironic by the fact that the
British expected to make their last stand
in England, not Egypt. Hitler considered Africa
nothing more than a sideshow. Focused on the
battle in Russia, he didn’t understand the
importance of Africa. His declaration of war
on the U.S. brought Sherman tanks into the
battle, which was a major factor in the British
Upon closer examination, though, it is not
so surprising the entire war in Europe turned
on the battle for Egypt. Had Hitler or Mussolini
understood what was at stake, World War II
might have had a very different outcome.
Setting the Stage
To understand what Africa meant to Britain,
one need only look at the Suez Canal. The
British war machine was almost completely
dependent on Middle Eastern oil. In the mechanized
military of the 1940s, gasoline was as important
a commodity as food and ammunition. Had the
British lost control of the Suez Canal, the
only way to get oil out of the Middle East
would be around the horn in South Africa.
That would add 45 days to the trip and was
more dangerous due to the vagaries of weather.
Moreover, the Axis would gain access to the
oil that was currently fueling the Allies.
Losing the Suez would knock Britain out of
the war altogether in just a few weeks.
In addition to the dire consequences of losing
the oil supply, the Suez Canal was a vital
link between Britain and the rest of its empire
in India and Australia. Supplies and troops
from these countries would be cut off. Africa,
and in particular Egypt, was vitally important
to keep the British in the war.
Allied fuel courtesy of the Suez Canal.
And yet even the British didn’t realize it at first. With the fall of France in 1940, it seemed inevitable that Hitler would cross the English Channel and force the Brits to fight for their lives on their own shores. Certainly that’s what he intended. However, the first event to place the fate of the war in Egypt was the RAF’s defeat of the Luftwaffe in the war for air superiority over England. With Germany unable to secure safety for its ground and naval forces, the planned invasion of England never materialized. That enabled Winston Churchill to focus his efforts on protecting the Suez.
Churchill was embroiled in a battle of his own. Nothing had gone right for the British in the last few years, with the Dunkirk disaster particularly fresh in everyone’s mind and Rommel running roughshod over Africa. Churchill was staring down the possibility of a vote of no confidence in the House of Commons if he didn’t get a victory soon. In 1942 he was impatient for an offensive from Eighth Army — the unit assigned to Egypt — that would take back some of Rommel’s gains and give the British people (and their elected representatives) some hope. General Alan Auchinleck, who commanded Eighth Army, haven taken over the post in November of 1941, was more cautious. He refused to allow the Prime Minister to rush him into an offensive for which he didn’t have the resources. There was a fair amount of acrimony between Eighth Army command and Number 10.
As irritated as Churchill was, the situation wasn’t nearly as dire as he perceived. Rommel was hamstrung by a series of problems that prevented him from taking full advantage of his recent victories. First, the British had naval bases Alexandria, Malta, and Gibraltar. This effectively gave them total control of the Mediterranean. That had a serious impact on Rommel’s supplies, most of which were coming from Italy. British ships and planes repeatedly sunk or captured Italian supply ships, forcing Rommel to budget what he had.
Moreover, because neither Hitler nor Mussolini
thought of Africa as an important theater,
little was done to change the problem. Hitler
had his attention and resources focused on
the Eastern Front, convinced he would be able
to drive the Soviets all the way back to Moscow.
Rommel got little of the support needed to
take command of the Mediterranean, and he
therefore got little of the supplies he needed
to knock the British out of Africa.
The supply issue was compounded by the terrain.
Fighting in the desert had distinct advantages
and problems. On the plus side, it was a huge,
open wasteland, making it impossible to defend
all of one’s flanks. Rommel had become extremely
proficient at running his tanks far to the
south of the enemy defenses, and then circling
back and catching them from behind. Desert
warfare was much like fighting on the sea,
where one has to search for the enemy, and
Rommel had become a master at outmaneuvering
the British. He was able, as a result, to
make huge gains with each offensive.
A windy day at El Alamein.
However, that same advantage created a supply issue. Because the desert was so huge and lifeless, and because a successful army could take such vast expanses of territory, it was possible for it to outrun its supplies. The closer he advanced to total victory in Alexandria, the longer and more strained Rommel’s supply lines became. With the British locking down the Mediterranean, the long supply lines were a huge liability. Little material moved along them and the British Desert Air Force bombed them repeatedly, further reducing what they could provide.
As if that weren’t enough of a handicap, Rommel was in ill health. He suffered from chronic stomach and intestinal catarrh, nasal diphtheria, and high blood pressure. The last was compounded by his frustration with the German High Command and the lack of talent possessed by most of the Italian units under his command (most of the Italian tanks were next to useless).
This might have been less of a factor if Rommel were not so lionized by both his men and the enemy’s. For the Germans and Italians, he brought great success. He could be hard on them, but nearly everything he did turned out right. In their eyes, it was as though God himself were leading them into battle.
British opinion of him wasn’t much worse.
He was seen as a nearly-invincible opponent
— so much that General Auchinleck was forced
to send orders to his subcommanders to “dispel
by all possible means the idea that Rommel
represents anything other than the ordinary
German general.” That task was made difficult
by the successes of Rommel and his beloved
Afrika Korps, as well as the humanity with
which he treated his POWs. Many remarked that
he regarded them as kindred spirits.
While godlike status was an advantage for his side, it had the negative side effect of forcing him to live up to it. As 1942 progressed, his health would take its toll on the legend.
The Desert Fox Attacks
Rommel caught a break from his supply troubles in April 1942. The Germans temporarily regained enough air superiority to freshen his supplies. It wasn’t enough, of course. He only got 32% of what he requested. The Italians got three times as much (although in fairness there were 40,000 more of them than there were Germans), which didn’t help much since Rommel felt he needed to rely mostly on his Afrika Korps (the 15th and 21st Panzer Divisions and 90th Light Division) for success.
Still, he understood that if he waited too long the British would be able to gain in strength to the point where he would be overwhelmed. Since he at least had better supplies than he had for months, he decided the time for an offensive was right. Thus, on 26 May 1942, he attacked — just a few weeks before Auchinleck was planning the offensive for which Churchill had been begging.
too, Rommel got lucky. Not only was Eighth
Army unprepared for an offensive of its own,
some of its forces had been bled off to deal
with the developing Japanese threat in Burma.
Auchinleck was undermanned when Rommel came
Even so, Auchinleck had the numerical advantage. He had 850 tanks to Rommel’s 560. Three hundred of Rommel’s were the heaviest German tanks, which had to date proven far superior to the British ones, but Eighth Army had 170 American-made Grants, which had enough firepower to challenge the heavy German units for the first time.
Rommel opened, as had become his signature,
with a flanking maneuver to the south of the
British position. Rommel led the attack himself
at the head of Afrika Korps. He achieved his
first objective of sweeping around behind
the British quickly at Bir Hacheim, but he
ran into trouble when Eighth Army’s counterattacks
stymied his progress towards Tobruk.
Before long, he found himself trapped between the British minefield and their tanks. He was forced to use his sappers to open a line of retreat in the minefield to escape. Here, Eighth Army squandered an opportunity to win a decisive victory. They were unable to concentrate their counterattacks, and Rommel slipped free.
After three weeks of hard fighting, Rommel had reduced the British numbers to 70 tanks to his 160. The American Grants with their 75mm guns had taken the Germans by surprise, but it wasn’t enough to drive them back. Rommel captured Tobruk on 21 July, and was rewarded with a fair number of supplies, 35,000 POWs, and a promotion to Field Marshall from the Fuehrer. The Desert Fox commented, “I would rather he had given me one more division.”
Auchinleck was in a bind. General Ritchie, who was in command of the army, decided to make a stand at Mersa Matruh but was completely overrun. Auchinleck decided to abandon his administrative duties as commander-in-chief of the Middle East and take direct control of the British forces. He relieved Ritchie,and withdrew his forces to El Alamein.
He understood Alexandria and the Suez were in peril, and that Eighth Army had to find some way to halt the German-Italian advance. Fortunately, he had foreseen the potential need for this and found the perfect place to make a stand. El Alamein was only a rail station along the Mediterranean, but it was a bottleneck in the otherwise wide-open desert. The ocean hemmed it in on the north, and 38 miles to the south lay the Qattara Depression, a quagmire of quicksand and salt marsh 200 miles below sea level. Rommel would not be able to outflank the British to the south here. He would have to come at them directly. When he first took command of the African forces in 1941, Auchinleck had ordered the El Alamein line strengthened as a precaution. Now his foresight would be put to the test.
began his assault on El Alamein on 1 July,
but by this time his supply lines had simply
become too long. He didn’t have enough gasoline
or tanks to mount a serious offensive, and
he wasn’t able to break through the British
line, despite being just 60 miles from total
victory in Alexandria. By the end of the month,
he had to shore up his defenses and wait for
new supplies. His latest offensive was over.
He had driven Auchinleck to the brink of defeat,
but he could not push his British adversary
over. By making a successful stand at El Alamein,
Auchinleck had saved Egypt and the British
war effort as a whole. At the time it didn’t
seem that way, but this was another one of
those historical ironies. Auchinleck had been
forced to run, and, in so doing, he laid the
seeds for total victory in Africa.
Monty Takes Charge
Churchill was fed up. The offensive he’d wanted never materialized because Rommel attacked first, and British forces were driven back within 60 miles of total defeat. The prime minister laid responsibility for these failures completely at the feet of General Auchinleck.
He flew to Africa and sacked the Middle East command staff. It didn’t matter to Churchill that Auchinleck had held Rommel or that he did so with depleted troops. What Churchill saw was yet another staggering loss to British position and morale. Eighth Army suffered 13,000 casualties in the fighting. Thus, General Sir Harold Alexander was given CIC Middle East, and General Bernard “Monty” Montgomery was placed in charge of Eighth Army.
Whether or not Auchinleck would have been
vindicated had he been allowed to remain in
command is hard to say. Certainly, history
shows that things worked in the British favor
from July 1942 forward. Maybe the results
would have been similar had a command change
not been made. But placing Montgomery in charge
of Eighth Army turned out to be a brilliant
move. There he would make his reputation as
one of the great generals of World War II,
and his cunning was at least in part responsible
for the British fortunes that were to follow.
It almost didn’t happen that way. Churchill initially named
General W.H.E. Gott commander of Eighth Army,
despite the fact that Chief of the General
Staff General Alan Brooke favored Monty. Feeling
that what Eighth Army needed was someone with
new ideas, Brooke feared Gott was too tired
and stale to be effective against Rommel.
But, in another historical irony, Gott’s plane
was shot down en route to his new command.
He died, leaving the way clear for Montgomery.
Monty’s first order of business was to relocate
Eighth Army headquarters near Desert Air Force
HQ so as to facilitate better cooperation
between the two. This idea seems obvious in
retrospect, but at the time it was by no means
axiomatic. Monty was the first to insist on
it in this theater.
Montgomery inspects the men.
He then put together two armored divisions to be kept as a striking force in the rear. Calling them a corps de chasse, he hoped to use them the way Rommel did the Afrika Korps.
Next, he ordered there would be no more
retreats. The battle for Egypt, he declared,
would be won or lost at El Alamein. If necessary,
the British would fight to the death to protect
it, for he understood that if Rommel broke
through this line, there would be no stopping
him short of Alexandria.
Finally, he instituted rigorous fitness training
for all personnel from the generals on down.
When accused of being too harsh, he replied
that if the men were going to die of exhaustion,
it would be better to do it now than in battle.
He visited every station along the line, talking with the men and officers. He spoke of fighting, and he believed they would win. Much of his first month was dedicated to instilling a new esprit de corps, and it was successful. The beleaguered Eighth Army took heart, thinking for the first time they might have a general equal to the sly Desert Fox.
With his command established, it was time to turn his attention to Rommel. Montgomery agreed with the general principles of Auchinleck’s defense plan. From the coast to Ruweisat Ridge (10 miles north of the Qattara Depression) were four infantry divisions. Between the southern-most soldiers and the depression was a minefield, behind which was stationed the 7th Light Armored Division. Additionally, Monty agreed with Auchinleck that the key piece of land was Alam el Halfa, a five-mile-long ridge Rommel would have to secure before he could advance.
liked the general idea, Montgomery set about
improving it. He brought more artillery and
armor from the reserves at the Nile Delta
to toughen the defensive line. He also set
up dummy tanks and minefields at the weakest
part of the line, near Himeimat. He expected
this was where Rommel would attempt to break
through, and he intended to confuse the Afrika
Korps in an attempt to slow them down. Finally,
he ordered the tanks at Alam el Halfa to dig
in hull down.
His wisest decision, though, was to order the British not to be drawn into open fighting. They were to return fire and harass all attackers that came at them, but he didn’t want to fight panzers in the open desert. He wanted them driven to the dug-in tanks at Alam el Halfa where the British had the advantage. Monty was convinced fighting in the open was what had cost them in the past, that the superior equipment and training of the German tanks and crews was too much for them.
With everything set, Eighth Army waited. They knew Rommel would need to attack near 25 August to take advantage of the full moon. Now it was just a matter of time.
Rommel’s Last Offensive
Monty understood Rommel’s position too well. If he waited
until September, he risked Eighth Army becoming
too well supplied, staffed, and entrenched
to ever break through. Moreover, his own supply
position continued to worsen. The Axis had
failed to subdue Malta, and Britain was using
the air and naval superiority that allowed
to cripple Italian shipping to Africa. Rommel
was only getting one fifth of what he needed,
and what he did get had to come along very
long supply lines. Thus, the gasoline he needed
most was being partially consumed just to
get it to him.
The clock was ticking. If Rommel couldn’t
break through by the end of August, it would
be impossible for him to ever do so. Despite
the noose tightening with each passing day,
Rommel held off until 30 August, praying more
gas would arrive. He’d been assured by the
Italians more would arrive, and the Luftwaffe
promised to fly him 500 gallons a day if the
Italians failed. Neither was able to make
good on those promises. Unable to wait any
longer, Rommel attacked five days after the
A British 25-pounder goes to work at
the Battle of Alam el Halfa.
Despite his disadvantages, he had a few surprises for the British. He began the battle with 443 tanks, 200 of which were German, and 27 of those were new Mark IV’s the British hadn’t seen in battle yet. He also had 70 Mark III tanks re-equipped with better guns. Thus, while he was short on supplies, he had more firepower than Eighth Army was expecting.
He hit them from the south as usual, but this time he couldn’t just sweep around them, hemmed in as he was by the Qattara Depression. He would have to actually break through the tip of their defenses. He was counting on a slow reaction by the British, which, under previous commanders, he had reason to expect. Prior to Montgomery’s arrival, they had taken a lot of time to reach decisions and react. Unfortunately for Rommel, this time things would be different.
His intention was for the Afrika Korps to attack the southern edge of the British position while the Italian XX Corps invaded a little further to the north and the German 90th Light Brigade to hit still further north. The entire force was to be through the minefields by dawn, with Afrika Korps and part of XX Corps to be 30 miles beyond. Afrika Korps would then sprint for the coast while the infantry fought encircled British positions. With the British on the run, Afrika Korps would split up for the kill — 21st Panzer Division would head to Alexandria while 15th Panzer Division and the 90th Light Brigade made for Cairo.
However, Rommel’s plan was based on poor intelligence. The minefields were much thicker and much better defended than he was led to believe. Not until 0930 of 31 August with the sun fully upon the field were the minefields at last cleared. Major-General von Bismark, the 21st’s commander, had been killed by mortar fire. By this time, Monty had a pretty good idea of Rommel’s plan, and he sent more tanks to Alam el Halfa to shore up the defenses there.
the Desert Air Force took to the skies, flying
in tight formations of 12 to 18 planes and
carpet-bombing the daylights out of the German-Italian
forces. The invaders suffered huge vehicle
losses as a result of this part of the defense,
and Afrika Korp’s commanding officer, Major
General Nehring was wounded in one of the
Consequently, Rommel altered his plans. Instead of the wide sweep to the east he’d been planning, he turned Afrika Korps in tighter and went for Alam el Halfa — just as Monty intended. The 22nd Armored Brigade was lying in wait.
At first, it looked as though Rommel’s gambit might pay off. Upon arriving, the superior range and firepower of the German guns blew a hole right through the center of the British line. The commanding officer, Brigadier G.P.B. Roberts called for reinforcements, but they were slow to arrive. Twice artillery strikes on the leading German tanks, just as they were approaching the threshold of the British line, prevented disaster. Then the reinforcements arrived to plug the gap, and the Germans were repelled with the setting of the sun.
The battle was lost at this point, and Rommel
likely should have withdrawn and set up a
defensive position. Instead he tried again,
this time only using 15th Panzer because his
gasoline shortage had become critical. Montgomery
perceived now that Rommel’s objective was
solely the ridge, so he sent the 23rd and
8th Armored Divisions to join the 22nd. This
gave him a phalanx of 500 tanks the Germans
simply could not penetrate. Two abortive attacks
on 1 September made it plain the offensive
Nevertheless, Monty was cautious. By 3 September it seemed pretty obvious Rommel was withdrawing. Monty gave strict orders no one was to pursue. He feared it might be a feint, and he didn’t want his tanks caught in open battle with the Germans where their better equipment and training could make a difference.
To Montgomery’s chagrin, he had to concede Himeimat to Rommel. This ridge would give the Germans and Italians a clear view of the British movements. That would prove to be an advantage for Monty, though, not the Desert Fox. It provided the opportunity for subterfuge, which the British would employ to devastating effect in the coming months.
In the meantime, irony had struck again.
Rommel found himself in the same position
the British had faced a few months before.
He had to create a line in the sand and hold
it against invasion. If the British broke
through, they would knock the Germans out
of Africa all together. The tables had turned.
of a Legend.
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John R. Phythyon, Jr. is a freelance
writer and an award-winning game designer
living in Lawrence, Kansas. Read more of his
work at www.johnphythyon.com.